Casualties in a civil war

July 24, 2014

Alan Maass looks at where the fault lies in the shooting down of a passenger plane.

THE 298 people who died in the shooting down of a passenger aircraft over eastern Ukraine last week are more innocent victims of a civil war wracking the country--and the two superpowers that have fueled the conflict, the U.S. and Russia, are trying to exploit the tragedy.

Rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, who oppose the new government that came to power in the capital of Kiev earlier this year, are accused of firing a surface-to-air missile that struck a Malaysian Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur.

U.S. political leaders showed their true priorities by immediately denouncing the insurgents and their Russian supporters, on the basis of circumstantial evidence, before the flaming wreckage had burned out.

Following suit, the U.S. and European media have eagerly reported every rumor that casts suspicion on the rebels, while ignoring or downplaying other parts of the story--including the fact that the Ukraine Army has been escalating its campaign against the rebels, and its units are equipped with the kind of anti-aircraft missile systems needed to shoot down an airliner flying at the altitude the Malaysian Airlines plane was.

Wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine
Wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine

But the response of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin has also been cynical. They deny that the rebels in eastern Ukraine have gotten weapons and training from across the border with Russia, but this flies in the face of what the insurgents themselves say.

Alexander Borodai, a leader of Donetsk People's Republic proclaimed by the insurgents, insisted this week that the Ukraine Army had "all the technical ability and they had the clear motive" to shoot down the airliner, not the rebels.

But it is the rebels who have been shooting at airplanes. This week, they downed two Ukrainian fighter jets on the same day. Since June, the insurgents have been quite successful in shooting down helicopters and other aircraft, including a large cargo plane, roughly the size of a passenger jetliner, that was hit by rebel fire in mid-June and crashed near the airport in Luhansk, killing 49 people.

All of these aircraft were flying at lower altitudes than the Malaysian Airlines plane, within the range of less powerful weapons than the surface-to-air missile that apparently hit the passenger jet last week.

One possibility is that the rebels captured a more sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system from Ukrainian forces and got training to use it, officially or not, from Russian sources--or a launcher was brought over the border from Russia in an area the insurgents controlled--and this was the weapon that downed the Malaysian Airlines plane, most likely as a result of fighters misidentifying the passenger airliner as a military plane.

Another less likely possibility is that the Ukraine military, with or without the connivance of the U.S., attacked the Malaysian Airlines plane with the intention of blaming the pro-Russian insurgents for committing an atrocity. The U.S. government is no stranger to downing civilian aircraft--a U.S. Navy ship blew apart an Iranian jumbo jet in midair in 1988, and an anti-communist terrorist on the CIA payroll set a bomb to explode on a Cuban airliner in 1976, to name two examples--so this scenario can't be dismissed.

WHICHEVER SIDE is responsible, the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 is bound up with the intensifying military conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Though it has gone largely unreported in the West, Ukraine's central government has been pressing ahead with a military offensive in areas where the rebels took over several months ago. At the end of June, President Petro Poroshenko announced the government would abandon a ceasefire and negotiations with Russia and other powers--the military campaign resumed at a stepped-up pace.

Now, the Kiev government and its backers in the U.S. and Europe will use shooting down of the passenger airliner as an excuse for even further escalation. Fighting between army forces and insurgents has grown heavier on the outskirts of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people and the fifth-largest in the country--according to insurgent leaders, 40 percent of the population has left in anticipation of a siege or assault.

On the day that the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down, government forces claimed to retake parts of another rebel-controlled city, Luhansk, after an artillery assault that damaged electricity and water treatment facilities.

All told, more than 1,000 people have died, including fighters on both sides, since the Ukraine government began its offensive in the east in April. Thus, even if the insurgents are guilty of firing the missile that downed the passenger airliner, the Kiev regime and its backers in the U.S. and Europe bear their share of the responsibility for having ratcheted up the tensions and violence that set the stage for a missile to be launched.

THE U.S. and European interest in Ukraine is to draw the largest country on Russia's Western border--one historically dominated by Moscow, both before and after the fall of the former USSR--into a closer economic and military relationship with the West. This has been a long-term objective of U.S. imperialism since the 1989 collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and subsequent fall of the USSR.

The U.S. has supported the right and far-right parties that came to power after the toppling of former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych in February, which look to closer ties with Europe, even at the cost of imposing harsh austerity measures demanded by the European political and business elite.

These right-wing nationalist parties were the leading political forces in the mass protest movement that erupted against Yanukovych's government last year, after he rejected an agreement for closer economic and political cooperation with Europe, and titled back toward a trade deal and ties with Putin's Russia.

But the Maidan movement--named for the huge public square in Kiev that anti-government demonstrators occupied for months in defiance of brutal police attacks--thrived because of a mass popular mobilization, driven by bitterness at the repression and corruption of the Yanukovych regime and the greed of the super-rich oligarchs who dominated Ukraine, no matter which political faction was in charge.

Yanukovych's attempts to alternatively co-opt and crush the uprising failed, and the Maidan eventually had echoes not only in the west of the country, traditionally the base of the nationalist parties, but the east--Ukraine's industrial heartland, closely integrated with the Russian economy to the east, and with a large Russian-speaking population.

But when--after one last deadly crackdown on protesters dissolved into chaotic street battles--Yanukovych fled Kiev in February, the right-wing nationalists filled the power vacuum, with the support of the U.S.

Yanukovych's downfall was a blow to Putin and the rulers of Russia, which has dominated Ukraine in various forms for centuries. The natural gas pipelines that crisscross Ukraine are critical for getting Russia's main export to its primary markets in Western Europe. Plus, Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in the south of the country was the site of Russia's massive naval base on the Black Sea--a key ingredient in Putin's aspirations to project Russia as a world imperialist power.

Russia therefore responded to the downfall of its ally and the new dominance of the pro-West nationalist parties in Kiev by engineering a military takeover of Crimea. A hastily organized referendum produced a lopsided vote in favor of secession, and a pro-Russian political leader turned up in Moscow to ratify Crimea's annexation to Russia.

Soon after, an armed insurrection emerged in Ukraine's eastern provinces (known as oblasts) like Donetsk and Luhansk, quickly taking over local rule from the official authorities.

The Russian presence has been less obvious than in Crimea, where Russian military forces openly participated in the takeover, but there's no doubt that the insurgents view Russia as their ally. The leaders of the eastern uprising openly state their sympathies with Putin's authoritarianism and chauvinism--for example, mimicking Putin's crusade against LGBT people.

There is broader popular support in the east for the rebels because of the very legitimate suspicions about the right-wing nationalists--including open fascists--who dominate in Kiev.

One of the first acts of the parliament after Yanukovych was toppled was to pass a bill banning official languages other than Ukrainian--a move clearly directed at the Russian-speaking population in the East. Plus, the nationalist regime's plans for even harsher austerity measures will hit the industrial cities of eastern Ukraine harder than anywhere else.

Still, even as the rebels were asserting their authority and declaring the Donetsk People's Republic, many residents insisted that they opposed secession from Ukraine and/or annexation by Russia.

But the social polarization caused by intensified fighting--between the Ukraine Army, commanded by the right wingers in Kiev, and the rebel fighters, led by people favoring secession and union with Russia--is hardening support for nationalism on both sides. This is what set the stage for the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane.

Rather than try to de-escalate the conflict, the imperialist powers that loom behind both sides are ratcheting it up.

When Barack Obama and John Kerry demand that the rebels and their Russian backers be held accountable for attacking a passenger airliner, they are trying to gain an advantage for U.S. imperialist interests over their Russian rival. But in doing so, they are increasingly the certainty that more tragedies and violence--within eastern Ukraine and outside of it--will take place.

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